Fort Robinson massacre
The Fort Robinson tragedy (winter 1878-1879) refers to a series of events which occurred during the winter of 1878-1879 at Fort Robinson in northwestern Nebraska. After having been forced to relocate south to the Darlington Agency in the Southern Cheyenne Reservation, a band of Northern Cheyenne fled back north in September 1878 because of the terrible conditions. The US Army intercepted part of the Northern Cheyenne Exodus and took a band of nearly 150 Cheyenne to Fort Robinson in Nebraska. In January, after the Cheyenne refused an order in early January to return to the south, the soldiers began to treat them more harshly to try to force them south: they were confined to a barracks without rations or wood for heat. Most of the band escaped on January 9, but the US Army hunted them down. They quickly returned 65 to the fort, and by January 22 cornered and killed most of the last 32 escapees, as they were poorly armed and greatly outnumbered by 150 soldiers.
In September, 1878 a band of nearly 300 Northern Cheyenne, under the leadership of Little Wolf and Dull Knife, fled from the Indian Territory north through Kansas to return to their traditional lands in the Powder River country of Wyoming and Montana. They were pursued by US Army troops, but the warriors successfully fought the soldiers off as they crossed Kansas. They lived off the land, sometimes raiding settlers and cattlemen along the way to obtain horses and food.
In the fall of 1878 beyond the North Platte River, after crossing into Nebraska, the Cheyenne held council. They realized that 34 of the original 297 were missing; most had been killed but a few had decided to take other paths to the north. The Cheyenne decided to split into two groups. Those who wished to stop running, including Wild Hog and Left Hand, planned to go with Dull Knife to the Red Cloud Agency, where the Lakota were located. The Cheyenne who wanted to return to the Powder River country went with Little Wolf.
On October 23, 1878 in a blinding snowstorm, Dull Knife's band found they were surrounded by the US army; the encounter was accidental, as neither party saw the other due to the snow. Dull Knife convinced his warriors not to attack the soldiers; likewise, the army troops stood down. Representatives held a short parley, and the two groups camped overnight. By morning a foot of snow covered the ground. The soldiers offered some food and a few spare blankets to the Cheyenne, and suggested a move to a better camp nearby. The army confiscated the Cheyenne ponies but distributed more rations, including sugar and coffee. The next morning after a two-hour council, the Cheyenne agreed to surrender their weapons. They turned over only the older ones and concealed many. After learning that Red Cloud and Spotted Tail had been relocated to Pine Ridge, Dull Knife decided, due to the weather and his people's condition, to go to Fort Robinson. That night they took apart their best guns to hide the pieces: women hid the barrels under their clothing, and the smaller pieces were attached to clothes and moccasins as ornaments.
At sundown on October 26, 1878 the Cheyenne reached Fort Robinson. They were housed in an empty barracks about the size of a tennis court. The first night they were closely guarded and their baggage searched; the Army found a few guns. Sentries were posted in the barrack, but the Cheyenne otherwise had their run of the post. They could leave the Fort during the day, but all had to return by nightfall. The soldiers warned them that if anyone left, the rest of the band would be confined to the barracks. In November, 148 Cheyenne were counted.
By November 22 Carl Schurz, the Secretary of the Interior, had decided that the Cheyenne had to be returned to the south. This was also recommended by General Phillip Sheridan, commander of the Division of Missouri.
Late in November, Bull Hump, Dull Knife's son, borrowed a horse from Tangle Hair and left to see relatives who were living with the Sioux. The Army withdrew privileges and confined the Cheyenne to the barracks. The US Indian agent tried to negotiate with the Cheyenne about returning to the south, but they said they would rather die than return. While the US representatives did not accept the strength of the Cheyenne attitude then, later they realized its truth.
On December 4, 1878 Captain Henry W. Wessells, Jr. took command of the post. Born in Sacketts Harbor, New York, and educated in Connecticut, Wessells had served in the west since 1870. At first he got on well with the leader Dull Knife and his family. The Cheyenne called him "Long Nose".
In December Red Cloud was brought to Fort Robinson for a council with Dull Knife and the other chiefs. Dull Knife agreed to fight no more if the great father in Washington would let his people live on Pine Ridge Reservation, which held Red Cloud and his tribe. But, on January 3, 1879 the Cheyenne were ordered to return south to the Southern Cheyenne reservation.
When the Cheyenne refused to return to the reservation in the south, the soldiers put bars on the barracks windows and ended the rations. They gave no wood or heat. On January 9, Dull Knife still refused to go back south. Wild Hog and Left Hand agreed to talk with the soldiers, but said their people refused to return south. The soldiers took Wild Hog as a prisoner and put him in shackles.
At 9:45 that night, the Cheyenne escaped, using the guns they had hidden. The soldiers followed them quickly and killed many. By morning the soldiers had returned 65 Cheyenne to the fort as prisoners, among whom were 23 wounded. Thirty-eight Cheyenne had escaped, and the Army continued to pursue them to the north. Over the next few days, soldiers found six Cheyenne who had hidden near the fort and took them back as captives.
On January 22, two weeks after the Cheyenne escape, the soldiers cornered the 32 remaining band members above the Hat Creek bluffs, about 35 miles northwest of Fort Robinson. Led by Little Finger Nail, 18 men and boys, and 14 women and children prepared a defensive position in a dry creek bed, which came to be known as "The Pit". Wessells led four companies of soldiers, about 150 men, to attack the position from three directions. Despite withering Cheyenne fire from the pit, the soldiers repeatedly charged to its rim and fired in at the escapees. The soldiers' calls for surrender were met with gunfire. The soldiers killed or fatally wounded all the warriors, along with four women and two children. They found eight survivors, most beneath bodies of the dead. The Cheyenne killed several troopers and Wessells was wounded in the assault.
In January 1879, Dull Knife reached Pine Ridge, where Red Cloud was being held as a prisoner. After months of delay from Washington, the prisoners from Fort Robertson, including Little Wolf, were released and allowed to go to Fort Keogh, Montana, where they settled on a nearby reservation. Later several of the band were charged and tried for murders committed in Kansas during their exodus north. In 1994 the Northern Cheyenne reclaimed the remains of those killed and buried in Nebraska.
Notes and references
- Chapter 14, "Cheyenne Exodus", pages 331 to 359, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, Dee Brown, Henry Holt (1970, Owl paperback edition 1991), ISBN 0-8050-1730-5
- Chapter 29, "Little Wolf and Dull Knife, 1876-79", pages 398 to 413 and Chapter 30, "The Fort Robinson Outbreak", pp. 414 to 427, The Fighting Cheyennes, George Bird Grinnell, University of Oklahoma Press (1956, Scribner's Sons 1915),
- In Dull Knife's Wake: The True Story of the Northern Cheyenne Exodus of 1878 by Maddux Albert Glenn, Horse Creek Publications (October 20, 2003), ISBN 0-9722217-1-9 ISBN 978-0972221719
- Pages 109 to 159Tell Them We Are Going Home: The Odyssey of the Northern Cheyennes, by John H. Monnett, University of Oklahoma Press (2001), ISBN 0-8061-3303-1
- Pages 251 to 297, Holding Stone Hands: On the Trail of the Cheyenne Exodus, by Alan Boyle, University of Nebraska Press (1999), ISBN 0-8032-1294-1
- Page 252, Boyle, Holding Stone Hands
- Page 252 and 253 Boyle, Holding Stone Hands
- Pages 263 to 266, Boye, Holding Stone Hands
- Pages 266 and 267, Boye, Holding Stone Hands
- Pages 267 and 268, Boye, Holding Stone Hands
- Page 268, Boye, Holding Stone Hands
- Page 116, Monnett, Tell Them We Are Going Home
- Pages 263 to xxx, Boye, Holding Stone Hands
- Pages 149 to 156, Monnett, Tell Them We are Going Home, pp. 149-156
- The Iola register., January 17, 1879, Image 1 col 7
- Daily globe., January 24, 1879, Image 3 Col 2